The best Christmas gift I have ever given my children was the easiest and least expensive. There was no will-they-like-it or will-it-fit anxiety. It required no shopping, no wrapping, no batteries.
I discovered it by accident.
Several years ago, after a late evening of gift-wrapping, I turned on the television and crawled into bed, wearily wondering whether I had enough gifts for the children.
On television, a commercial - sounding much merrier than I felt - urged shoppers to take the fast-food route to solving shopping problems - gift certificates to McDonald's.
I rejected the suggestion but used the idea.
McMother's Gift Certificates were born that December night and became a cherished and permanent addition to our holidays.
With a pack of index cards and a felt-tip pen, I created hours of happiness, months of anticipation, and a sense of well-being for my boys that they enjoyed throughout the year.
Never have I enjoyed Christmas giving so much!
Comfortably propped up in bed, I imagined all of the boys' favorite things - dinner in front of the fireplace on a rainy night, sandwiches and lemonade under the oak tree on a warm spring weekend, blueberry muffins for breakfast in the courtyard on a summer morning, all of us flying kites together on a windy day, a pizza picnic, a steaming pot of applesauce, a long walk together, a loaf of homemade bread and hot chocolate.
My pen flew as I wrote out the certificates for each boy, taking his preferences into consideration - a blueberry muffin breakfast for Steven, a cinnamon apple muffin breakfast for Michael.
Aware of the special interests of each, I dashed off certificates with growing enthusiasm.
Michael, who was 6 that year, got a certificate good for a visit to a fire station. Steven, 8, received a certificate to go to a high school basketball game. Each boy got a certificate for the outing of his choice during the year.
This was a merry task indeed!
The boys love for me to play kickball with them, so each got a certificate that said, ''Good for 60 minutes of mother playing kickball.'' Another favorite: ''Good for an evening of charades and popcorn.''
Some of the certificates offered choices: ''Good for the mother-made dinner of your choice,'' ''Good for the mother-made dessert of your choice,'' and a real winner: ''Good for staying up late for something special.''
Enjoying this immensely, I wrote out one more certificate for each, ''Good for unlimited love, hugs, and kisses.''
I finished writing the certificates, using a different color felt pen for each child, tucked the cards into envelopes, added a felt-penned holiday decoration, wrote the names on them, and sealed them.
The boys' excitement and enthusiasm, when they opened their McMother's Gift Certificates Christmas morning, far exceeded my fondest hope. These simple cards carrying promises of pleasure were their favorite gift.
There were endless discussions of how and when they would be spent - Steven debating which basketball game he would choose to be taken to, Michael deciding which fire station he would prefer to visit, and each debating what the outing of his choice would be.
After the holidays, Steven commented, ''Christmas is all over for our friends , but since we got certificates, we still have so much to look forward to!''
And indeed they did. Each boy planned and replanned, many times, his favorite dinner, not wanting to use the certificate until the menu was just right.
It was summer before the favorite desserts had been settled on: peach kuchen for Michael, strawberry pie for Steven.
And in October and November, I honored certificates for steaming pots of homemade applesauce.
Of course, interests change with age, and Michael now prefers airplanes to fire engines. So this year he will get a certificate for a trip to the airport. And new this year will be certificates for a visit to the computer center at their favorite museum.
Christina, now three, will get her first certificates this Christmas. They will be for excursions to favorite parks, a ride on the nearby university bus, making tapioca, a trip on the commuter train to the next town and back, baking cookies with Mommy, a morning at the aquarium, rice pudding for breakfast, pine cone gathering in the woods, and a walk to the new bakery in town for warm croissants.
After Christmas, when all the gifts have been opened and played with - and both batteries and spirit have begun to run down - the McMother Gift Certificates offer something more, a continued sense of anticipation of good times to come.
Of course, most of these things we would probably do anyway. But with certificates in hand, the children have a firm commitment - a promise of pleasure custom-tailored to their tastes and enthusiasms.
Best of all, the gift certificates focus attention on the simple pleasures - and on time together. Perhaps the best gift we can give our children is time.